Shubert Theatre

“You must be crazy,” composer Frederick Loewe said when lyricist Alan Jay Lerner suggested they write a musical about King Arthur. “That king was a cuckold. Who the hell cares about a cuckold?”

Lerner knew better, of course. He knew that the story of Arthur is much more than just royal soap opera. And he knew that T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King had exposed the Arthurian legend’s enduring appeal, the hope for a better world in the face of despair. “Men die but an idea does not” is how Lerner summed it up in his autobiography; his emphasis on rationality and idealism despite humanity’s propensity for self-abasement and destruction echoes White’s own dictum, expressed through the magician Merlyn: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something.”

You’ll learn nothing from the production of Camelot now playing at the Shubert Theatre. Groomed to suit the limitations of its star, Robert Goulet, this hackwork road show makes one long for the imperfect but adventurous My Fair Lady that played last month at the Chicago. That show was often disappointing–but at least it risked something.

Directed by regional-theater traffic cop Norbert Joerder, and designed like a fantasy comic book (the look is fresh at first but wears thin fast), the Robert Goulet Camelot emphasizes the worst aspects of Lerner and Loewe’s flawed but rich final collaboration, premiered in 1960 as a follow-up to their superhit My Fair Lady. Plagued by problems ranging from Lerner’s ill health (clinical depression and a bleeding ulcer) to the near-death from a heart attack of director Moss Hart (whose brilliant touch, essential to the success of My Fair Lady, was lost when he had to leave the show), the original Camelot nonetheless had going for it a sense of noble aspiration, embodied in Richard Burton’s richly textured performance as Arthur and by the authors’ (or at least Lerner’s) attunement to the moral urgency of T.H. White’s epic antiwar novel, written 1938-1941 in anguished response to the imminence of World War II. (It’s one of the great English novels of the century; if you haven’t read it you can find it in paperback in the fantasy section of most bookstores–which is a little like categorizing A Passage to India as a travel book.)

When Lerner and Loewe brought Camelot to the stage, World War II was a memory; but Berlin, Cuba, and Vietnam were just beginning to heat up, and of course Camelot soon became enmeshed with the public’s perception of President Kennedy. Now it’s 1993. Bill Clinton is no Jack Kennedy; Bosnia may or may not become another Vietnam; but Robert Goulet is sure as hell no Richard Burton. His emotionally shallow, gruffly growling cowboy of a king is given to bug-eyed brusqueness as he pushes his way through the several exquisite monologues that express Arthur’s mounting moral dilemma over the (unconsummated) passion of his wife Guenevere for his best friend Sir Lancelot. The famous voice, meanwhile, is a soggy shadow of its phenomenal former self; Goulet sounds OK when he’s speak-singing the lyrics in short bursts (as they were written for nonsinger Burton), but when he tries to let loose with a long note the result is pathetically labored.

Everything else in the production is scaled back so as not to overshadow the second-rate star at its helm. Patricia Kies does a near-perfect Julie Andrews imitation as Guenevere–every inflection recalls Andrews’s pluperfect articulation–but it’s lifeless. Usually reliable comedy numbers like “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” (Guenevere’s cheerily bloodthirsty account of a young lady’s endangered existence at the hands of abductors and warlords) just sort of lay there. Steve Blanchard looks like Siegfried–the Norse hero, not the lion tamer–as Lancelot; he’s a hunky Aryan roboknight with a singing style that’s part operetta and part pop opera, a cartoon character who never delves into the real anguish Lancelot feels over losing his purity for love.

The lowest point is hit by James Valentine as King Pellinore, Arthur’s fuddy-duddy comic-relief sidekick; wantonly mugging his way through the role, Valentine strikes up an onstage rapport with Goulet that has all the subtle humor and delicate comic nuance of that between Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. Rivaling that for cheap humor is the line inserted by Goulet into Arthur’s speech about his new round table: the knights will make laws and plan improvements, Arthur boasts, to which Goulet adds, “Invent taxes.” (Congress wasn’t quite what White or Lerner had in mind as an analogy for Arthur’s chivalric order.)

But the audience eats it up, sad to say; they laugh along when Goulet breaks character in a carefully rehearsed “ad-lib” to laugh at Valentine, thus proving he’s a regular guy, and they applaud the past-his-prime star because he’s the one they paid to see. Never mind that he spoke his final speech so fast that they didn’t quite catch it–the beautiful elegy about a few stars sparkling at the twilight of a dream and one visionary making a difference, rushed through here like directions to the nearest men’s room. Maybe it’s just as well; in 1993, perhaps the audience wouldn’t really get into sentiments like these even if they could hear them. Too corny; nobody really believes that stuff anymore, do they? Camelot is dead; long live Camelite.